Civil Liberties, World War I

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During World War I, the Woodrow Wilson administration took unprecedented steps to mobilize public support for the war. In addition to a massive government propaganda campaign, Congress passed laws designed to silence dissent. Newspapers were censored, politicians were jailed, and mobs attacked those suspected of disloyalty. Some Americans organized to protest the erosion of democratic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, a group of rights that they called "civil liberties." Thus, while democratic freedoms were undermined during World War I, public concern over these policies inspired the beginnings of a twentieth-century movement to guard the right of Americans to criticize their government, even when their country is at war.

When President Woodrow Wilson called on Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917, the government faced a formidable task. Millions of young men had to be drafted, equipped, trained, and shipped an ocean away. To accomplish this in time to break the military stalemate on Europe's western front, Wilson demanded unprecedented powers to mobilize American society.

In addition to drafting men and directing the economy, Wilson took steps to control public opinion, encouraging patriotic support for the war effort. The task was made more urgent because Americans remained deeply divided about the conflict. When Germany invaded France in 1914, most Americans shared Wilson's desire to remain neutral. His reelection in 1916 was widely considered a vote for the man who "kept us out of war." When he declared war five months later, many Americans still opposed involvement. Some German immigrants remained sympathetic to their ancestral home; socialists thought the war was inspired by capitalist greed; and various religious sects opposed all war on principle. Considering national unity essential to military success, Wilson took steps to silence these critics, guarding American society from what he called "the poison of disloyalty."

silencing dissent

In June 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, making it a crime for Americans to speak against their government's war effort, to incite disloyalty, or to encourage men to resist the draft. A year later, the more restrictive Sedition Act outlawed "disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language" against the flag, the Constitution, and even the uniform of the armed forces. Those who continued to speak against the war risked heavy fines and jail sentences of up to twenty years.

The Espionage Act gave the U.S. postmaster general, Albert S. Burleson, the power to deny mailing privileges to any newspaper or magazine that seemed to give comfort to the enemy. The Trading-with-the-Enemy Act (1917) gave Burleson additional powers over America's foreign-language press. The postmaster wielded these censorship powers enthusiastically, and by war's end many of the nation's radical newspapers and magazines had been driven into bankruptcy. Those that survived agreed to toe the government's line on the war. Liberal and radical journalists complained to Wilson that his postmaster was violating the First Amendment guarantee of a free press, but the president generally supported Burleson's decisions. As one historian argues, during the war "only the administration's views of the larger issues found their way into print."

The government built an elaborate spy network to watch German immigrants and American radicals. Federal agents arrested hundreds for making anti-war speeches, and sometimes for informal and private remarks. Eugene Debs, four-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, was arrested in June 1918 for suggesting during a speech that young American men were "fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder." Sentenced to ten years in prison, he defiantly ran for president in 1920 from his jail cell in Atlanta, and received almost a million votes. During the war, more than 2,000 men and women were arrested for "disloyal" speech, and over 1200 went to jail.

In addition to these attacks on free speech, the government violated basic legal protections in other ways. Some conscientious objectors were court-martialed and mistreated in military prisons. A 1918 law sanctioned the deportation of any non-citizen suspected of belonging to a revolutionary group; hundreds were deported without the benefit of a hearing. And on September 5, 1917, federal agents raided the offices of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union, and arrested hundreds, including most of the union's leadership. Although the IWW was neutral on the war, business leaders considered the union to be dangerously subversive. Following mass trials, hundreds of IWW members, including most of the leadership, were sent to federal penitentiaries, convicted not for their actions but for their ideas.

The government's disregard for the civil rights of dissenters encouraged private citizens to express their patriotism by attacking those they suspected of disloyalty. Citizen groups such as the National Security League and the American Protective League broke up anti-war meetings, assaulted speakers, and conducted illegal "slacker raids" to round up young men who had failed to register for the draft. Mobs attacked and in a few cases even lynched innocent German-Americans, their rage fueled by a steady diet of government propaganda against the "Huns." Even colleges and public schools joined in the attack on freedom of speech, firing teachers suspected of German sympathies. While Wilson and other federal officials denounced mob violence, they also encouraged citizens to spy on their neighbors, and gave official sanction to some vigilante groups.

supreme court and civil liberties

When the Espionage and Sedition Acts were tested in the Supreme Court in the months after the war, the justices unanimously upheld the conviction of wartime protestors. Congress has the right to regulate speech, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes asserted in Schenk vs. United States, when the country faces "a clear and present danger." The court's claim that the government can limit basic American freedoms in times of war troubled some Americans, including many of Wilson's liberal supporters who feared that his war to "make the world safe for democracy" had undermined democratic principles at home. A new organization, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU; 1920), provided legal defense for those imprisoned for wartime speech. Raising public concern about government's new powers to regulate opinion, the ACLU and other groups pressured the government to grant an "amnesty" to many convicted under the wartime laws. As Americans tried in the early 1920s to "return to normalcy," most of those convicted under the Espionage and Sedition laws were released.

World War I serves as a stark warning that the stresses of modern warfare pose a threat to America's tradition of civil liberties. But this period also inspired what historian Eric Foner has called "the birth of civil liberties" in American society. First united in their opposition to government attacks on anti-war protesters in World War I, the ACLU and other rights groups have since won landmark cases that have helped to establish greater protections for dissenting voices in American society during times of war.


Foner, Eric. The Story of American Freedom. New York: Norton, 1998.

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Murphy, Paul L. World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States. New York: Norton, 1979.

Peterson, H. C., and Fite, Gilbert C. Opponents of War, 1917–1918 (c. 1957). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Preston, William, Jr. Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903–1933. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Rabban, David. Free Speech in its Forgotten Years. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rodney, Smolla. Free Speech in an Open Society. New York, Knopf, 1992; distributed by Random House.

Ernest Freeberg

See also:Addams, Jane; Dissent in World War I and World War II; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Labor, World War I; Red Scare.

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Civil Liberties, World War I

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